The North Carolina-based singer has studied the best to try to keep his music honest.

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Brett Harris

Brett Harris is a reason to revisit the nature/nurture debate. The singer and multi-instrumentalist from Durham, North Carolina grew up in a rural area where the only pop music he heard was on commercial radio in the ’90s, and the family had Beatles albums but not a turntable to play them on. There was a piano in the house and his brother had a guitar with a few broken strings, but nobody in the house was particularly musical. Still, Harris figured out how to make music with those meagre instruments. He started writing songs and has developed a sound that draws from Top 40 radio 30 or so years before Harris started listening—British Invasion and psychedelic pop and rock. While driving from Austin to Houston, he gushed about how great the reunited Zombies have been.

“It blew me away how great a voice Colin [Blunstone] still has, and the show was coming from a very genuine place,” Harris says. “They were in disbelief that people were there.” 

Harris visits New Orleans for the third time tonight when he plays the Neutral Ground Coffee House tonight at 10 p.m.. He’s not sure where one gig was, but he remembers that it didn’t have a PA, and that Susan Cowsill showed up to sing with him. He also played The Circle Bar, and he recalls that Peter Holsapple used to live upstairs in the building more clearly than anything about the gig. His musical interests are close enough to those of Holsapple and his former bandmate in The dB’s Chris Stamey that Harris became part of their world. When The dB’s reunited to play some live dates, they brought Harris along as a keyboard player and backing vocalist. When Stamey, Mitch Easter, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens toured Big Star’s third album with a rotating cast of musical guests, Harris was a part of that band as well. 

Traveling in those circles have served Harris’ music well. His upcoming album, Up in the Air, will be out in March, and his guitar-based songs have a psychedelic atmosphere that surrounds a clear melody and frequently an undercurrent of melancholy. “High Times” recalls The Eagles at their most yearning, and Harris phrases his vocal on “Up in the Air” in ways that echo The Kinks’ Ray Davies. More often though, The Beatles circa Rubber Soul, Revolver and Yesterday and Today haunt the tracks, although Harris didn’t really hear those songs until 1995 when he was 12 and he saw The Beatles Anthology on television.

Harris’ musical ambition and education started to take shape while he was in university. He began to think about performing his songs as a genuine possibility, and after hearing him play, a friend assumed Harris knew Harry Nilsson’s work. When he confessed that he didn’t, the friend passed him the records and Harris heard someone who spoke his musical language. Stacey asked Harris to sing Nilsson’s “Remember (Christmas)” for last year’s re-release of Christmas Time Again, and when Harris had to record the song, he appreciated how hard it is to sing and not to have the emotion lost in performance conventions.

“He’s on my Mt. Rushmore of American songwriters and singers,” Harris says. “What a master of singing he was. His emotion came from a real place.” 

Harris’ songs are more than the sum of his surroundings. He tries to write songs that are honest, which he quickly asserts is not the same thing as autobiographical. Harris points to David Bowie as someone who was honest in his work despite his constant employment of masks and artifice, and thinks of “honesty” as an expression of what the artist had in his/her mind and heart at the moment of creation. 

“You can tell when someone’s coming from a pure place and when someone’s going through the motions,” he says. 

Still, Harris’ experiences in recent years help him see how to realize honest music in the studio. While working on the Big Star Third project, he got to hear Big Star’s original master tapes and isolate tracks to get a handle on what made the songs tick. In them, he heard a similar emphasis on honesty over everything else.

“You hear Andy [Hummel’s] bass playing on those tracks and they’re amazing on their own, but they’re all gloriously imprecise in a way that makes everything sound big and melodic and rich,” Harris says. “They were more about capturing a feeling or a spirit than catching something exactly right and in tune. That’s an important lesson. We have the ability to make everything perfect in the studio, so sometimes we spend too much time on that. Because we have that ability, our standards are raised and we expect things to be in time and the instruments are in tune, but a lot of my favorite records have this rough edge to them.” 

In his mind, the recorded versions of the songs on Up in the Air are the definitive ones, but tonight and on his current tour, he’s playing them on his own with just an acoustic guitar. Harris will tour again later in the spring with a band to more present more fully realized versions of the songs, but he enjoys the acoustic experience as well. Being solo means he frequently ends up in smaller rooms which makes the vibe more intimate and the show more conversational—an unspoken one in most cases, a verbal one on occasions.

“I kind of like the challenge of getting up there with just a guitar and delivering these songs,” Harris says. “You learn quickly what’s essential to a song and what can be left behind.”